Archive for the 'diversity' category

Discussing obstacles for women in science – when is the right time?

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Ben Barres speak at my institution. His talk about his research on reactive astrocytes (something I knew nothing about) was very intriguing. But what I want to comment on here is the 5-minute aside he took in the middle of the talk to discuss obstacles that women in science face. He brought up some issues that I was aware of and some that I wasn’t – i.e. the fact that by his estimate, around 95% of women have been hit on at conferences, making women less likely to feel comfortable attending networking/social events, potentially inhibiting their careers, similar to the column by Kelly Baker today advocating codes of conduct at conferences. All those points were thought-provoking and important, but that’s not my primary focus here either.

What really struck me was simply the fact that Dr. Barres, a prominent name with a large draw (as the Chair of Neurobiology at Stanford among other notable experiences), pointedly took time from his resesarch-focused talk, when he had a captive audience, to bring up this issue that is so clearly important to him, and to many of us.

As I looked around the crowded auditorium I saw that, as usual, 75% of the audience consisted of a combination of old white men (PIs) and young women (grad students, postdocs), while the other 25% were mostly young men and a few senior women. I thought to myself, “Who in this crowd would have ever chosen to attend a talk about the obstacles that women face in science?” I would wager that it would almost exclusively be the young women – those with the most at stake in the issue, yet those who are arguably the least capable of removing the obstacles.

For that matter, if one engaged senior PIs in a conversation about sexism in science, would they be receptive to hearing the message or would they take the opportunity to state their own view, or dismiss the conversation out of hand? In the context of Barres’s presentation, they had virtually no choice but to sit and politely listen without inserting their own response.

In short, I thought this was a brilliant way of getting an important message heard, forcing people who could and would avoid or ignore the issue in other situations, the people who really need to be aware of the issues and how they need to be the ones to act to change them, to actually listen. While I would not advocate or appreciate every academic talk turning into a political soapbox, I would love to see more prominent people taking on important and relevant issues like how we can foster women and underrepresented minorities in science.


2 responses so far

The benefits of networking – thoughts on what that really means

For years, networking was a terrifying word to me. In the past, it meant going a mile out of my comfort zone to find the biggest bigwigs at a meeting or seminar and getting their attention somehow. And trying to force conversation that hard is just painful, and I would end up falling on my face. Often hearing in school that I “should” be networking to advance my career just made my stomach do flips. What I realize now is that I had a huge misconception about what that word really was, and the people promoting this idea never really stopped to explain it to me. Thankfully, over the years, I have gained a much more profound understanding of what it is. My ideas about networking have gone through a beautiful evolution to the point that networking seems effortless, and I actually look forward to these opportunities. Net-building happens in ways you can’t always anticipate, and at times you don’t even know it is happening. It is fun for me to reflect back and try to see some of the webs that have been formed in my life, some of which have gotten me where I am today, and others that have perhaps influenced someone else’s path. Allow me attempt to unpack what this formerly terrifying word really means to me, today. Networking is NOT about only looking forward. I am referring to the bigwigs here. Networking is more about looking around in all directions. It is important (in lots of ways) that interactions are with people at ALL stages of their career. When I reflect back on my own experiences, the people who I previously thought I was supposed to network with have been the least helpful in carving the path I took to where I am at. One misconception I had about networking was that it was only about what I could get out of the interaction. I have gotten where I am by networking, but it wasn’t in ways that I thought. Often it was the lateral connections that have made the most impact on me, like: talking with other postdocs – sorting out the pros and cons of our goals, strengths and weaknesses, teaching with other people and having casual conversations about what they value and dislike about their current path, and talking with friends and former peers who are no longer in academia to see how their lives have changed. It was one of my friends who pointed out the opening for the government job I have now. While the numerous conversations I had with both my graduate school and postdoc mentor were insightful for one particular path, it was very limited in perspective. And I like to think I have provided insight to those mentees I have worked with. I always go out of my way to get coffee or lunch with people who want to know more. I love following their career paths as they graduate and get their first and subsequent jobs. I find it very satisfying to participate in the bio sci mentor program as an alumnus. This slightly ties into the larger issue of women in STEM in general. Often, younger female students don’t get enough exposure to the reality of working in STEM. Currently, 36 percent of high school students within the United States are not ready for college-level sciences. Misha Malyshev, CEO of Teza Technologies works with nonprofits to curb that number. International Day of the Girl is a great time to celebrate the women in this field, and every field, and recognize the opportunities allowed to girls. This will take effort on our part as we progress in our career paths. There will always be girls that come after us, and we should step up to the responsibility of mentoring, even though we will never have it all figured out. Day of Girl Networking is more effective if you express your genuine thoughts, ideas and questions. Another one of the misconceptions I had about networking is that I had to have a crystal clear understanding of myself and what I wanted before I “networked” so that the superstar I was supposed to rub shoulders with could help get me to where I wanted to be. It gave me so much anxiety to think that I had to know where I wanted to be while I was still in high school and college, and even grad school. As a result, it was almost like I had to create a character for myself (who I thought I wanted to be in the future) and only interact within these bounds. This had the unfortunate effect of preventing me from asking questions – questions that probably would have given me a lot more insight into figuring out who I wanted to be. Referring to the women in STEM example I gave above, if younger women had a more real understanding of what STEM careers are really like, these numbers might be different. Now, what networking means to me is having casual conversations with all kinds of people. What I have found to be most effective is trying to put myself in their shoes, a point that this article also makes. I try to understand their perspective on where they are at in their careers, or the interesting issues they are having to deal with at work. It has led to some fascinating conversations. Knowing what I know now and being rather new to my field, I try to follow up with those contacts I have had a meaningful conversation with. I send an email about how much I enjoyed chatting with them, how they have added to my understanding of x,y, or z, and any offer to follow up on a,b, or c. I want people to remember who I am. I know I have a lot to learn, and I believe I have a lot to offer. I have no idea what opportunities will come my way in the future, but I want to be in the best position I can to tackle them, and be in the best position to offer meaningful insight to people who are searching! I would love to hear other people’s networking successes and/or experiences to learn from.

No responses yet

Schrodinger’s Gender

Today’s guest blogger is a PhD statistician, mother of two, and thirty-something transgender woman. She works in the medical device industry as an applied statistician, with specialization in the areas of experimental design, statistical process control, product reliability, and bad math puns.

An on-the-job gender transition is fraught with uncertainties. Or at least mine was. In the months leading up to my coming out at work, my mind was quite skilled at dreaming up transition-related uncertainties for which I could not provide a good probability estimate.

  • Will my consulting work suddenly dry up if my scientific colleagues are uncomfortable working with a trans woman?
  • Will there be massive riots regarding the restroom I use, as anticipated by my very nervous HR representative?
  • Will I be tolerated as a quirky and benignly amusing math nerd?
  • Will I be accepted for who I am, and be allowed to thrive in my career as both as a professional statistician and a (trans) woman?

In the 11 months since my coming out at work, the vast majority of my colleagues have fallen somewhere on the spectrum between tolerance and acceptance. No bathroom riots have broken out, no lurid gossip has been floating around, and none of my most important colleagues have ceased working with me.   Not only was there an absence of disaster, but there was a deluge of kindness in the days after my coming out. Many colleagues wrote me heartfelt emails of support, and the vast majority quickly honored my request to call me by my new legal name and my desired (female) pronouns. A few brave colleagues were even willing to stand up for me when, shortly after my transition, they heard a non-supportive individual casually dropping some transphobic slurs behind my back. The colleagues immediately challenged the language and later reported the incident to the relevant manager. These outpourings of support left me quite overcome with amazement and joy.

To be sure, there were challenges in the transition process. It was something of a logistical nightmare to time my legal transition to be on track with my changing body, and to navigate the IT and HR bureaucracies regarding my name change.   Health insurance coverage has been an ongoing battle. As a final logistical hurdle, there was no corporate funding to provide education on transgender issues, so my allies and I had to organize our own education session shortly after my coming out. Despite the challenges I faced, being a trans statistician has largely been a non-issue. Being a female statistician, however, is an ongoing adventure.

As hormones have helped my appearance to align with my own (female) identity, the way in which colleagues treat me has changed in subtle yet pervasive ways. Transgender women provide a rather unique lens into sexism and women’s issues, given that we essentially form our own controlled gender experiment of size n=1. That is, I have all the same mathematical skills as I did before transition, and I would argue I’m an even better statistician now that I’m not distracted by the angst of gender dysphoria. So the differences I notice between my male and female working lives are likely clues to the subconscious structure of workplace gender. A few negative observations include

  • When I teach classes within my company, there often are one or two guys staring at my body rather than listening to my lecture. To be clear, the majority of my students are entirely respectful, but the change in behavior is noticeable.
  • I teach exactly the same classes as I did before transition. My teaching has always garnered good reviews in class evaluations, but only after transition have I noticed outliers (usually 1-2 people per class) who give me negative feedback. Overall, my post-transition reviews are still fantastic.
  • In large meetings, I need to work harder to get my voice heard, especially if I am the only female present.
  • Even with my PhD, occasionally guys (with very little statistical education) attempt to “man-splain” to me some statistical concepts that they don’t actually understand. My statistical knowledge is doubted more now, especially by men who never knew me before transition.

None of the above issues prevent me from being successful; I just need to work a bit harder as a woman to gain the respect of new colleagues.

The forms of sexism I’ve encountered are infinitesimal in comparison to all the positive changes I’ve experienced in the workplace. Overall, my relationships with my colleagues—both male and female—are much better now that I no longer need to wear a mask at work.  I’m happier by multiple orders of magnitudes than I ever was before, and I believe that my positivity makes me more effective as a statistical consultant. Despite all the jokes about statisticians being boring introverts, I think the most effective ones are actually quite good at building relationships with scientists, and I feel such relief that now I can finally build those relationships on a footing of personal truth. I am so proud to be a transgender statistician, a female statistician, and a statistician who no longer is afraid to speak the truth.


No responses yet

A new normal

Jul 02 2015 Published by under diversity, female scientist, tim hunt

I have a few thoughts that I have not seen discussed in the whole Tim Hunt storm.

In case you have not been keeping up, you can read here a first hand account of Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt’s comments at a lunch at the World Conference of Science Journalism by the journalist who broke the story.

Basically he said that women (actually, he said “girls” – how often do you hear grown men referred to as boys? How demeaning! ) are fodder for love and they cry when criticized. Never mind the love aspect, because, of course, love takes two. About the crying…

james-rodriguez-crying

For one, it is OK to cry. It is not only OK to have strong emotional responses (i.e. one that might lead to crying in a professional setting), it is probably a good thing. Yes, there is a place for emotionless analytics in science, but there is also a need for passion. One can feel that passion, the highs of science and the lows, and yes, even cry, and still have room for unbiased careful science.

Bringing varied emotional intensities is also an aspect of diversity (not only related to women versus men, but also different cultures which may have different emotional norms). While diversity can cause friction (because isn’t it easier to make decisions with someone who is more likely to agree with you?), studies have shown that workplace diversity is good for productivity (Exhibit A and B) and innovation. This may be because simply having different perspectives allows multiple different ideas to come to the table. It may also come from the friction – having different ideas forces discussion. If everyone in the room doesn’t agree with you, you will have to do more to back up your claim.

So, differences = good.

Now, who is different? If you have two things that are different from each other, they are both different. But people tend to label one as “normal” and all others as “different. And of course, given the history of men and women in science, male behavior is currently considered the default behavior.

It does not have to be this way. It has not been this way in every society (even today). So in an age when, as a society, we are moving toward enlightened views on gender equality, it is time to drop the assumption that male behavior is normal and everything else is a variant. No, you should not need to feel “Oops” for crying at work. Or, in reverse, someone who has never cried after being criticized should feel self conscious for lacking that emotional response.

In a related note, a spin on the concern that Tim Hunt’s comments will discourage women’s interest in science: If we react to his comments by saying — I’m stoic like a man, I don’t cry! — we reinforce the idea that one needs to be like an “average” man to succeed in science. That will discourage people who don’t feel like they can be like that or don’t want to be like that. There are many examples of successful women, but we don’t always hear about their unique struggles. Or men that don’t fit this stereotype for that matter. Maybe this is a good opportunity for successful people to put it all out there.

Anyone?


No responses yet

Problems with women…I mean Tim Hunt

When the news of Nobel laureate Tim Hunt’s remarks at a convention of female scientist and science journalist broke out this week, my first thought was,

Oops.

Oops, because I am a culprit of crying in front of male advisers, once during graduate school and another during postdoc.  I had perpetuated a stereotype held by the prominent scientist.

Fortunately or unfortunately, but most conveniently, I am a type who does not remember unpleasant events.  So I do not in detail remember why I cried in either of the instances (one was ~15 years ago, the other was ~6-7 years ago).  Most likely I was criticized — of my work ethic, apparent lack of ingenuity in science inquiry, or something else.

Before I reveal further, I should mention that I never cried.  I considered myself strong, independent, mature, and emotionally stable.  Crying in public, let alone in professional settings, was unthinkable.  I was rather stern and cold actually; I saw others cry (men or women) and a part of me wondered why they could not be tougher.

So for me to cry, it had to be something grave (or just I was not as tough as I thought).  In either case, my advisers did not seem to be unsettled by my crying.  They kept stabbing me with criticisms and accusations even after my tears were flowing.  I defended myself, rebuffing and disagreeing with their claims as struggling to control my tear ducts, running nose, and breathing.  I was mostly angry at myself for having brought out such distressing discussion upon myself.  My advisers were not the type to harass or bully, so what they were saying about me must have been true, and it was terrible.  At least the discussion brought to light how they were viewing me. I was shocked and felt the need to correct it with all my might.

Training and mentoring someone do not have to (or should not) include tears.  Yet in my case perhaps it was needed.  Maybe I really was a bad graduate student and postdoc who was not achieving potential and my advisers ran out of patience and options.  Maybe I needed to be humbled and inspired, and it was what it took.  Maybe they wanted to test me because I seemed so cold and emotionally flat [ha].  Maybe my advisers and I had real human relationships where we could freely express ourselves upon built trust. [In fact both advisers and I got along really well besides those instances. I respect them both as a scientist and person.]  I give my advisers far more credit than Tim Hunt who must be really uncomfortable with seeing someone expressing emotions.

Perhaps Tim Hunt’s real problem is not with women; it is with humans, humans who express emotions and fall in love.  Are emotions that bad for science?  Is it not diversity, collisions, conflicts, and distractions of ideas that produce the best results?


No responses yet

The Burden of Representing a Demographic

May 14 2015 Published by under academia, career plan, diversity, guest post

Check out my guest post on Tenure, She Wrote!


No responses yet